Opinion: Building resilience when the world stops

In the coming weeks and months, the resilience of North East businesses and communities will be put to the ultimate test. Richard Dawson highlights some of the local firms who are not just waiting for better times but are tackling the challenges COVID-19 represents head on

When the mass employers of the Tyne and Wear shipyards, the Durham coalfields and the Teesside iron and steelworks closed down in the 1970s and 80s, the resilience of the North East economy and business community was tested like never before.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Government-mandated lockdown to slow transmission of the disease, that resilience is being tested once again.

Never before have we as a region had to grapple with the implications of effectively closing down the economy for a period of weeks or perhaps even months.

Even in wartime, many key industries that are now closed would have been required to increase production and keep supply chains strong on the home front.

In fact, in both the First and Second World Wars, North East industry played a crucial role in keeping the country running.

Today, the country has been brought to a deliberate standstill.

As a result, it is widely expected that, at least in the first two quarters of 2020, the UK will be in recession, as a sharp fall in economic activity drives down GDP.

But almost all of the economic models for 2020 as a whole are predicting a v-shaped recovery and a massive surge in activity in quarter three and four, provided we get the public health situation under control.

In the meantime, North East firms of all shapes and sizes will be drawing on that heritage of resilience to get through this incredibly difficult but hopefully short-lived period.

What’s interesting is the number of local businesses looking at how they can adapt so that they don’t just survive but thrive.

Leading the way on this are organisations who have gone a step further than implementing flexible working policies and communicating digitally to develop products that can tackle the virus head on.

One of the best examples of this is life sciences firm QuantuMDx, who have a team of scientists and engineers working to develop a battery-powered and portable diagnostic machine, which can test for the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen in just 15 minutes.

From its office in Newcastle, QuantuMDx’ diagnostic equipment could be crucial in screening samples and identifying who exactly has the virus moving forward.

Also helping scale up the UK’s testing capacity is Teesside University, who has sent a range of specialist testing equipment from its National Horizons Centre in Darlington to the NHS frontline.

Specifically, the university has sent a QIAcube Connect Platform and RNeasy extraction kits, which will be used to automate extraction of SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA from clinical specimens – a crucial step in the testing process.

The widespread availability and accuracy of testing will be a key part of the Government’s forward strategy if and when social distancing measures are relaxed in the weeks ahead.

In lieu of the vaccine, only ubiquitous testing, tracing and isolation will be able to prevent further debilitating outbreaks of the disease.

Improved personal hygiene is also central to this issue, and at least two North East firms can already help here.

Chemical company Ineos has announced plans to build a new hand sanitiser plant in Newton Aycliffe with a view to producing one million bottles of the in-demand product per month.

Already a producer of ventilators, medical tubing and rubber gloves, the hand sanitiser push is just one way Ineos is tackling this crisis.

In addition, a team of experts in University of Sunderland’s Automotive and Manufacturing Advanced Practice (AMAP) cluster have created a new gadget to open doors without using your hands.

With the threat from infection from shared door handles being high, the AMAP team quickly designed and manufactured the product using a 3D printer.

These are just a few of what I’m sure will be dozens of North East companies, universities and business organisations who aren’t prepared to sit and wait for better times but are actively looking for opportunities in amongst the disruption.

The North East’s economy is rooted in the adversity it has faced over many decades and will be driving that v-shaped recovery when it comes.